Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed: Sixteen Writers on the Decision Not to Have Kids - Meghan Daum 2016


WHILE WORKING ON this book, I sometimes found myself contemplating a variation of Leo Tolstoy’s famous “happy families” line from the opening of Anna Karenina: People who want children are all alike. People who don’t want children don’t want them in their own ways.

Of course, the original maxim isn’t exactly true, since happy families come in all varieties, and unhappy families can be miserable in mind-numbingly predictable ways. And since most people eventually wind up becoming parents, whether by choice, circumstance, or some combination thereof, my version isn’t necessarily an airtight theory either. Still, in thinking about this subject steadily over the last several years, I’ve come to suspect that the majority of people who have kids are driven by any of just a handful of reasons, most of them connected to old-fashioned biological imperative.

Those of us who choose not to become parents are a bit like Unitarians or nonnative Californians; we tend to arrive at our destination via our own meandering, sometimes agonizing paths. That’s one of the reasons I put this anthology together. Contrary to a lot of cultural assumptions, people who opt out of parenthood (and, to be clear, this is a book about deciding not to have children; not being able to have them when you want them is another matter entirely) are not a monolithic group. We are neither hedonists nor ascetics. We bear no worse psychological scars from our own upbringings than most people who have kids. We do not hate children (and it still amazes me that this notion is given any credence). In fact, many of us devote quite a lot of energy to enriching the lives of other people’s children, which in turn enriches our own lives. Statistically, we are more likely to give back to our communities than people who are encumbered with small children—not just because we have the time but because “giving back” often includes returning the kids to their parents at the end of the day.

To read the essays in this book is to notice that, in many ways, the common theme is that there is no common theme. Though all the authors are more than satisfied, and in some cases downright ecstatic, with their decision to forgo parenthood, no two reached that decision in quite the same way. For some, the necessary self-knowledge came after years of indecision. For others, the lack of desire to have or raise children felt hardwired from birth, almost like sexual orientation or gender identity. A few actively pursued parenthood before realizing they were chasing a dream that they’d mistaken for their own but that actually belonged to someone else—a partner, a family member, the culture at large. As Jeanne Safer so poignantly describes in her essay, she didn’t really want to have a baby; she wanted to want to have a baby.

That line nearly took my breath away. Though I can now say (and as I wrote in the margin of Jeanne’s piece), “That’s exactly how I once felt!” there was a time before that when I hadn’t yet reached such hindsight. Instead, I was trying very hard to talk myself into wanting something I’d always known deep down wasn’t for me. Not that things wouldn’t have worked out fine if those talks had ended with a baby. I had a willing husband and a supportive community of friends. There’s no question that I would have loved my child with a kind of love I’d never know otherwise. But when I found my way back to my gut instincts, when I “stood in my truth” as the parlance goes today, I realized that what I wanted most of all was to find some different ways of talking about the choice not to have kids. I wanted to lift the discussion out of the familiar rhetoric, which so often pits parents against nonparents and assumes that the former are self-sacrificing and mature and the latter are overgrown teenagers living large on piles of disposable income. I wanted to show that there are just as many ways of being a nonparent as there are of being a parent. You can do it lazily and self-servingly or you can do it generously and imaginatively. You can be cool about it or you can be a jerk about it.

Typically, it’s been the nonparents who have carried a reputation for being jerks. Some of that is our own doing. When Time magazine ran a cover story in the summer of 2013 showing a visibly self-satisfied couple lying on the beach under the headline “The Childfree Life: When Having It All Means Not Having Children,” it highlighted a major misconception about the voluntarily childless: the idea that we don’t want kids because we’d rather have expensive toys and vacations. Type “childfree” into an Internet search engine and you will find no end of tirades against “breeders” along with smug suggestions on the order of “I’d rather spend my money on Manolo Blahniks” and “My reason for not having kids is that Porsche in my driveway.” Even the term childfree, which was coined as a way of distinguishing the deliberately childless from those who unwillingly or unintentionally find themselves in such circumstances, rubs some people the wrong way—after all, why should children fall into the same category as cigarette smoke or gluten?

When that Time article came out (the article itself, I should say, showed far more equanimity than the cover suggested), I had just begun my search for contributors to this book. The timing seemed perfect. As the subject was being chewed over in the media, it was clear that the conversation had a long way to go. Cable news hosts purported to be “shocked” at the idea that some people don’t want kids (the more diplomatic were quick to add, “Not that I’m judging”). On the Internet, the standard barbs of “selfish” and “shallow” ricocheted around comment threads, even as thousands of contented nonparents expressed their gratitude that the issue was finally being talked about. One night I caught a public radio program on which a listener called in to say that choosing not to have children was a totally legitimate and commendable choice but that he personally had been so enriched by fatherhood that he couldn’t help but think that nonparents were living incomplete, ultimately sad lives.

If the core message of this book is that parenthood is not—and moreover should not be—for everyone, the chief lesson of editing the book was that writing about skipping parenthood isn’t for everyone either. Of the many dozens of writers I approached (all of whom had at least hinted, in their work or in interviews, that having children was never high on the agenda), very few were prepared to take on the subject. Some said that, yes, they were childless by design but lacked sufficient angst about it to have anything interesting to say. Some told me they had a lot to say but couldn’t for fear of hurting certain family members. In one case, a celebrated novelist who’d apparently been known at one point as someone who never, ever wanted children replied to me with a photo of his infant son.

That’s why the sixteen essays in this book are such gifts. Brave, thoughtful, and uncompromisingly honest, they are all tributes to the exquisite challenges of living what is commonly (and usually inadequately, though there’s often no other way to say it) called an “authentic life.” Frequently funny and sometimes sad, occasionally political and always personal, these essays show that there’s more than one way to be a responsible, productive—and even happy—adult in the world.

The authors of these essays represent a range of generations, geographical regions, and ethnic and cultural backgrounds. Despite this diversity, they have one big thing in common: they are all professional writers. Some will say (and as Geoff Dyer cheekily insinuates in his essay) that makes for a less-than-representative sample of the general childless-by-choice population. After all, artists—especially writers—need more alone time than regular people. They crave solitude whereas many people fear it. They resign themselves to financial uncertainty whereas most people do anything they can to avoid it. Moreover, if an artist is lucky, her work becomes her legacy, thus theoretically lessening the burden of producing a child to carry it out.

I take the point. But the truth is that writers, outliers though they may be, are the ones whose job it is to write. They are the ones charged with putting the world’s complications and contradictions into more universal terms. And while many contributors to this book refer to their writing lives when reflecting on their feelings about parenthood, in no case do I think anyone’s choice boiled down to “writing versus children.” If it were that simple, they wouldn’t have much to say on the subject. Besides, the majority of writers, like the majority of nonwriters, want children and have them. For all the talk of a groundswell in “childfreedom,” for all the ways in which it’s crucial that society stop assuming that everyone should be a parent, people who want kids will always outnumber people who don’t. And anyone but the most catastrophizing overpopulation hawk will say thank goodness for that.

There are notably more women than men here—a thirteen to three ratio, to be exact. That ratio felt to me more or less proportionate to the degree to which men devote serious thought to parenthood (at least before it happens) compared to women, who are goaded into thinking about it practically from birth. Still, I thought it was essential that the collection include male voices. Too often, this subject is framed as a women’s issue. But men who are disinclined toward fatherhood must contend with their own set of prejudices; for instance, assumptions that they can’t commit to a partner, that they wish to prolong adolescence indefinitely, or that they’ll be intractably (and gratefully) domesticated as soon as the right partner reels them in.

The three men in this book draw from very different life experiences. Geoff Dyer is straight, married, and rather dyspeptic about children and family life. Tim Kreider is straight, single, and searching for existential mooring outside the realm of parenthood. In a bittersweet essay about fatherhood avoided by default as well as by choice, Paul Lisicky, a gay man now single after a long-term relationship, confesses, “I’d probably say yes if I ever become involved with someone who wanted to be a parent … though I might be saying it with the same level of commitment with which I’d say, ’Of course I’d move to Tokyo.’”

The women’s stories hit just about every possible note. Some are fiercely unapologetic, such as Laura Kipnis’s jeremiad against overly sentimentalized notions of motherhood and Lionel Shriver’s confirmation that, yes, human populations are dwindling in the Western world, but that’s still no reason to have a baby. Some revisit less-than-idyllic childhoods; Michelle Huneven writes about parents who managed to be at once indifferent and suffocating, Danielle Henderson explores the psychological fallout of her mother leaving her permanently in the care of relatives at age ten, and Sigrid Nunez recalls the harsh child-rearing styles of the urban housing projects where she was raised and her recognition, later on, that the writing life that had saved her would never lend itself to her being the kind of mother she felt it necessary to be. On the other side of the spectrum, Anna Holmes pins her ambivalence on the fact that her parents set too good an example. “I suspect that my commitment to and my delight in parenting would be so formidable that it would take precedence over anything and everything else in my life…” she writes. “Basically, I’m afraid of my own competence.”

For a book about not having children, there are a surprising number of real and would-be pregnancies in these stories, ending in elective abortion, miscarriage, or a sudden change of heart about trying to get knocked up in the first place. For Rosemary Mahoney, the fear of future regret drove her, for a time, to shop for donor sperm and undergo fertility treatments as a single woman. Kate Christensen spent part of a difficult marriage longing for a baby, only to eventually find happiness outside the bounds of marriage and motherhood. Elliott Holt writes of a brief period of baby lust followed by a major bout with depression. Forced to take an inventory of her mental health history, she realized that the rewards of being a doting, besotted aunt far outweighed the risks of having children and being an unstable mother.

There is perhaps no more besotted an aunt than Courtney Hodell, who elegantly chronicles her gay brother’s path to fatherhood and must confront the ways in which their uncommonly close relationship will be forever changed. For Pam Houston, who writes about the tyranny of the “having it all” message and the backward march of reproductive politics in the United States, it’s an adored stepdaughter who taps her nurturing instincts. For Jeanne Safer, a practicing psychotherapist, the process of guiding patients to clarity and genuine insight can feel like a form of parenting. Meanwhile, M. G. Lord writes provocatively about how the effects of a childhood tragedy played out decades later when her then partner decided to adopt a potentially drug-exposed baby.

Some of these essays will no doubt enrage certain readers. Some enraged me in places, which I took as all the more reason they should be included. But all of them, without exception, left me feeling a little bit in love with their authors—and not just because those authors were handing me sizable chunks of their souls, sometimes with prose that brought me to tears. I loved them because of all the reactions they stirred in me, the one that rattled around most loudly in my brain was It’s about time. It’s about time the taboo of choosing a life other than parenthood was publicly challenged by people who’ve thought beyond the Porsche in the driveway or the Manolos in the closet. It’s about time we stop mistaking self-knowledge for self-absorption—and realize that nobody has a monopoly on selfishness.

And so it is my great privilege to present these sixteen works. May you find them as captivating, exasperating, entertaining, and enlightening as I do.

Meghan Daum